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Monday, December 31, 2018

Master Blueprints # 48 "You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “Subterranean Homesick Blues”
Album: Bringing It All Back Home
Release Date: March 1965

In my most recent entry (Master Blueprint # 47), I hit on 2 big-ticket items that had been significant ‘loose-ends’ for much of the year.  This current entry, which is my 3rd to last, is to address all the other relatively minor loose-ends that were never quite able to see the light of day. All remain in their embryonic stages.  Who knows, maybe someone else can run with one or two of these.  And yet, they are but a few drops in a very large bucket, seeing as Bob Dylan offers us an endless cache of lyrics and music to spawn off our own musings.

And so, without further ado here is what remained in my ‘to do list’ file; a smorgasbord-bulleted-catchall of unpolished Master-Blueprint-centric thoughts so to speak:
  • Bob Dylan seems to reinvent himself every 3 years.  If I ever got around to writing a book that revolved around this concept, here’s a rough sketch for chapter titles: “61-63 Folk Hero”, “64-66 Plugging In”, “67-69 American Roots”, “70-72 Destroying the Myth”, “73-75 Back on the Tracks”, “76-78 The Renaissance Man”, “79-81 The Gospel Years”, “82-84 Hebrew Foundations”, “85-87 Sucking in the 80s”, “88-90 Hit the Road Jack”, “91-93 Acoustic Rebirth”, “94-96 Studio Silence is Golden”, “97-99 Old Man River”, “00-02 Riddle Me This” “03-05 Dear Diary”, “06-08 Mr. DJ”, “09-11 The Blues Highway”, “12-14 Closure”, “15-17 Musical Inspirations”
  • I was pondering doing an entry centered on the stunning “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, but 3 strikes were working against me: 1) It’s such a personal love song - about Bob Dylan’s ex-wife, Sara Lownds Dylan - that I found it difficult to translate to my own world, 2) the Joan Baez cover version is omnipresent, which I find odd and complex on a certain love-triangle level, and 3) I cannot get out of my head a vision of the late, great, comedian Jerry Lewis shouting “LADY!” on an imaginary stage with Bob Dylan at the moment Dylan sings the same word in the line “should I leave them by your gate, or sad eyed ‘LADY’ should I wait”.  This is just not right (but funny nonetheless).
  • The best Bob Dylan setlist I ever witnessed was at the Orpheum Theatre in Boston on October 9, 1994 (2nd row seats): 1) Jokerman 2) Señor 3) All Along The Watchtower 4) Queen Jane Approximately 5) Tangled Up In Blue 6) Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine) 7) The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll 8) Master Of War 9) Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right 10) Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door 11) Highway 61 Revisited 12) In The Garden 13) Maggie’s Farm 14) Ballad Of A Thin Man 15) It Ain’t Me, Babe.  I would have loved to elucidate on this experience, however, I was not as appreciative at the time as I am sure I would be today.  My basic premise with live concerts (of which I have seen many) is that you can reap the harvest of your experience if you are in the moment.  There were other closely-related ideas in that same to-do list mini-pile, including a note to give Neil Young’s “Thrasher” a fresh listen.  Given the subject, I would have most certainly explored Bob Dylan’s relationship with Mr. Young in the same entry, which I believe is a mutual admiration society (think: The Neil Young reference in Dylan’s “Highlands”).
  • Speaking of mutual admiration, there are many more of Bob Dylan’s musician friends who would have been great to tackle if I could have come up with enough unique material to make a solid blog entry out of any one of them: Robbie Robertson, David Bowie, Ronnie Wood, Marvis Staples, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen, John Lennon, Jerry Garcia, Tom Petty, Warren Zevon, and Van Morrison are but some of the most intriguing of these relationships.  For example, in a Morrison entry, I could have fleshed out that Bob Dylan and Van Morrison are the only musicians I know of who cut off their past entirely to start anew (Dylan in NYC and Van the Man in Boston).  What does it take to start anew?  One clip alone, of Dylan and Morrison performing together in Athens, Greece, has tremendous potential for anyone with enough writing-muse to take it in and spit out ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q1EoT9sedqY ).  Anyhow, someone should write a book with a chapter dedicated to each one of these Bob Dylan musical relationships (I did tackle George Harrison by the way – see Master Blueprints # 24).
  • One of the first things I can recall about Bob Dylan when I was a kid was his frequent use of the word "ain't" in his songs.  I was raised in parochial schools for goodness sake.  Penmanship and grammar were at the top of Sister Margaret Ester's list.  I eventually cleared that mental barrier, coming to understand Dylan’s reasoning behind frequent use of the word as a link to his Middle-American musical roots.  Anyhow, lots of fun left on the table there. 
  • Its’ odd… the more Bob Dylan reveals of himself, the less we know him.  How is this? 
  • In the film, Amadeus, the Emperor doesn’t ‘get it’ and falls asleep at one of Mozart’s brilliant concerts.  What causes people to not recognize genius when they see it?  Is it about not letting go of inhibitions?  Is it generational? Cultural? Societal? Upbringing? Lethargy? A hardening of the heart? All the above? On the flip side, what opens your mind up to see genius?  Is it all in the heart?  Maybe.
  • As I scan through, it appears only one set of Bob Dylan lyrics made my to do list, those being: “Well the moral of the story, the moral of this song, is simply that one should never be where one does not belong.  So, when you see your neighbor carryin’ somethin’, help him with his load. And don’t go mistaking Paradise for that home across the road”.  I never really expounded on these closing lines from “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest”. I find them fascinating and I sing them aloud whenever the song plays out.  Talk amongst yourselves. 
  • Another note went as follows: “Woodstock, the concert. People flocking to Bob Dylan’s home region in the Catskills, many of them to connect with his aura, his music, him.  But he’s not there.  Dylan launched the 60s, almost singlehandedly, which culminated in this event.
  • Oh, to be in attendance at ‘The Last Waltz’ concert.  It was the end of an era - Bob Dylan’s relationship with The Band, which began 10 years earlier. Flash back to all those interrelationships between Dylan and the Band members. That’s a movie that needs to be made.
  • Related to Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, my good friend Jeff Strause wrote to me at the beginning of the year how Dylan’s music must be part of the Nobel story, not just the written lyrics.  In Jeff’s words: “Tambourine Man is I suppose one of the key songs from his catalog with that uber-literate Nobel Prize blah blah with the spectacular lyrics. But for me none of the songs have much meaning without the musicality that surrounds the song and gives it its feel. I've always had trouble following the story in more dense songs and only really pay attention to the lyrics of any song unless they kind of hit me over the head. Which of course a lot of good songs do, but only when the music matches the message. And that is after spending most of my life listening in the past 40 plus years at folkie type venues and listening to less pure 'rock and roll', more lyrics-oriented stuff.”  These words of Jeff’s reverberate so true.  I have fleshed these thoughts out some in this blog series, but not nearly enough.  Of course, we all know Bob Dylan hesitated to accept the Nobel Prize: He too was grappling with equating his music writing to literature.  Still, I believe the Award is so deserving, and I’m of the impression that Dylan eventually came around to understanding the rationale of the Nobel Committee.
  • Divine inspiration/Existentialism/Authenticity. I think I’ve tackled these topics throughout, but this is a storyline that can never be quenched.
  • Bob Dylan was the last of the ‘Big Five’ for me in terms of my top-tier music inspirations, the others being (in chronological order), the Beatles, the Who, the Rolling Stones, and Neil Young.  Is this the path I had to take, in this order?  Would I have been better off in a different order? Is it all related to where you’re at in any given point in life and intellect? 
  • I once read where Bob Dylan ran into Barry Manilow at a party and told him to keep up the good work.  This freaked Manilow out.  Was Dylan being sincere or cynical? There’s very little here to write about, but it was a note nonetheless.  Being an anti-Disco, anti-commercial rock-and-roll listener, I could have had fun with this.
  • Oh Mercy > The first Bob Dylan studio album I enjoyed thoroughly upon release (unless I count the Travelling Wilbury's in '88, or even "Silvio" and a few other songs from the dead 80’s…. but there was nothing even close to Oh Mercy).  What was it about the 80s that sapped 60s musicians of their mojo? I mean, I would have connected with Dylan a lot earlier otherwise. The late 80s were about the time some of those 60’s musicians began climbing out of the doldrums (i.e. Neil Young, Lou Reed, the Rolling Stones). For Bob Dylan it would be that 1st Travelling Wilburys' album, soon followed by Oh Mercy. 
  • Bill Belichick is the coaching equivalent to Bob Dylan:  Brilliant, elusive, and adept in deflecting reporters’ questions. What questions would you ask Bob Dylan in an interview?  From what I’ve read, he’s still waiting for someone to ask the right question.
  • do a little research on Alan Ginsberg” …. I never did
  • The Basement Tapes album cover: The best of all time? I think it’s better than Sgt. Pepper.  An entry on great album covers would have been fun (Who’s Next, Sticky Fingers, Abbey Road, Wish You Were Here, Eat a Peach, In the Court of the Crimson King). What makes a great album cover?  Dive into the meaning of some of Bob Dylan’s great album covers”.
  • A famous Woody Guthrie quote: "It's a folk singers job to comfort disturbed people and to disturb comfortable people".  Nuff said.  Bob Dylan certainly took this to heart.
  • What's so wrong with the concept of a court jester when you really think about it? (Don McClean’s “American Pie” reference to Bob Dylan).  I mean, the jester is trying to point out the King’s flaws, is he not?
  • Dylan the soothsayer”.  (sorry, that’s all I’ve got)
  • Oops, one other set of lyrics made my to-do list: "There are no Truths outside the Gates of Eden".  It’s enough to send a young man to the monastery and a young woman to the convent.
  • Despite it being one of my favorite Bob Dylan songs, I could never put to words my love for “Simple Twist of Fate”.  The bass guitar sets the heavy mood. I’m now thinking the song is another one that is simply too personal to translate to my own world (see 2nd bullet above)
  • Bob Dylan is the closest I have ever come to connecting with poetry.
  • My Daughter Charlotte’s connection to Time Out of Mind
  • My Quebec colleague Mike’s connection with Oh Mercy
  • I had a note to do an entry on “My Back Pages” (the “Forever Young” entry – Master Blueprint # 37 - may have tackled the potential subject close enough)
  • An entry on “Love is Just a Four-Letter Word” never materialized.  It’s one of the few Bob Dylan songs that he never performed himself (at least nothing unearthed to date).  The Joan Baez cover version is mesmerizing.  I also have a note which says, “early years of marriage”, but I have no idea what I meant by that at this point.
  • Oh, one other note: “Must memorize and perform ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’” ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MGxjIBEZvx0 ) .  Ahhh, ok, well yeah, I moved ahead with that one, despite reservations that it may neutralize everything I’ve written about in this entire Master Blueprint series.  And so, for anyone who managed to make it to the end of this entry and gets these notifications via email (friends and family), attached is a treat for you (in Google Docs).  For those on Facebook, you will simply have to send me a note and I’ll do my best to forward it on.

Happy New Year.

Pete

Monday, December 24, 2018

Master Blueprints # 47: "I Hear the Ancient Footsteps Like the Motions of the Sea, Sometimes I Turn There’s Someone There, Other Times It’s Only Me”

Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “Every Grain of Sand”
Album: Shot of Love
Release Date: August 1981

This is my 297th Music and Memory blog entry to date, and I’ve yet to write about the weekly process to these writeups.  I figured now was as good a time as any, seeing as it was an archetypal  week in regards to the way the muse unfolds, and it was highlighted by several key events including 1) an Al Kooper encounter, 2) my daughter, Charlotte, coming home for the holidays from Panama, Nicaragua, and Colombia after spending virtually the entire year in that region, and 3) the “Steeves Man of the Year” Christmas-season lunch in Boston with my Dad, my son Peter, my 3 brothers, a brother-in law (the second could not make it), 2 nephews, and a best friend.  These big-ticket items, along with a whole variety of other human interactions, had me contemplating throughout the week the majesty of my chosen Master Blueprint song, “Every Grain of Sand”.

If I’m in good shape with a given writeup, I begin the thought process just after posting my prior entry.  This past week, however,  I was in almost too good a shape seeing as two Friday’s ago I was still fleshing out last week’s entry centered on the song “Visions of Johanna” (see Master Blueprint # 46), when “Every Grain of Sand” - one of the most spiritual songs in Bob Dylan’s entire body of work - began to sift into my consciousness like….well, like sand through the narrow neck of an hourglass. In the song, Dylan contemplates the splendor or God, specifically through the virtuous windows of forgiveness, renewal and redemption, with lyrics like “in the fury of the moment, I can see the Master’s hand, in every leaf that trembles and in every grain of sand”.

From the get-go I started relating grains of sand to those human interactions I’d experienced the past week.  Prior to this, I would not have thought that it was Bob Dylan’s intention for someone to interpret the song in this way; his meaning coming across as far more infinite than day-to-day connections with family, friends, acquaintances, and others.  And it certainly was not in my mind when I concluded early in the year that “Every Grain of Sand” would be the focus-song for one of my final entries.  But this was the way it played out, and I now believe the concept works within the context of the song, because there are infinities in how an interaction between two or more people unfolds, as well as the possible interconnections between those interactions.  Thinking about it more now, I’m certain Bob Dylan would be open to such interpretation:  Multi-meaning on multilevels is what makes his music so powerful.

Those proverbial grains of sand began sifting their way through the narrow neck of that proverbial hourglass when I visited June and John Leary last Friday morning, an elderly couple here in my hometown whom I’ve connected with for almost a year now.  June and John are too feeble to go to Mass on Sundays, or any day for that matter, and so, I bring Mass to them, as a Eucharistic Minister.  After performing that duty, I often sit and hear their story; how things are going in their lives, their memories of yesteryear.  Old age has made it difficult for them to perform the types of daily activities that most of us take for granted, and they do not live in the best of conditions…. not even close.  However, I have never heard them complain.  On the contrary, June and John are kindly, peaceful, and good natured, and I always leave their home feeling humbled.  With such an interaction, I could not help but start thinking about “Every Grain of Sand” a bit prematurely.

The next day, Saturday, Nancy and I decided to run a handful of errands by walking the roundtrip 4 miles through downtown Pepperell.  As we came upon one friendly face after another, I thought about the blog entry I was just wrapping up; a central theme being our move to this town 15 years ago (again see the last entry; # 46).  A great guy I used to coach soccer with gave us a warm and humorous greeting. Charlotte’s former employer shared his excitement for us, in the know she would be coming home in a few days.  The banker, the clerk, the neighbor, the store owner; ‘Season’s Greetings’ all around.  That evening we headed to a Christmas party in town and found ourselves surrounded by a group of close friends who we have connected with since moving here.  There was much laughter and good cheer.

Sunday after Mass I taught catechism.  I’ve been doing this for going on 20 years now, with most of my recent duties being with the older Confirmation groups (9th-10th grades).  This year, however, I filled in a need at the 1st grade level.  It’s been a back-to-the-future experience, these youngsters reminding me of my own daughter and son’s unfiltered world when I first started teaching.  Seeing as I began formulating my talking points for this entry around that time, I could not help but note that these children are on the other end of the spectrum from where June and John Leary are at in their lives.  Along with the events that played out in the interim on Saturday, I had, within a 48-hour period, connected with numerous souls at virtually every stage in life’s journey.  I rounded things out even more that evening, taking my weekly bass guitar lesson from my 30-year-old instructor Jake.  We jammed for over an hour, something I’d not been able to do up to that point in my lessons. I was feeling in the groove; Jake’s laid-back, improv teaching style a perfect fit for the way I pick things up.

There was much more to come in the still-young week, including all three of the prior-mentioned big-ticket items, but that hourglass in my mind was beginning to accumulate sand.  On the way home from Jake’s I removed Blonde on Blonde from the cd player and queued up “Every Grain of Sand” for the first of many listens.

Late that Sunday afternoon, after sending my prior blog entry out to friends, family and fellow Bob Dylan fans, I began poring over a lengthy email that fellow ‘Dylanologist’, kindred spirit, and newfound friend, Linda Whiteside, had sent me earlier that very same day. The title of the email was ‘transfigurations’ and, due to prior exchanges with Linda, it immediately caught my attention:  The two of us have been mutually intrigued by comments Bob Dylan had made in a 2012 Rolling Stone Magazine interview about having gone through a transfiguration in the early 60s and we’ve been bouncing related thoughts off one another this past year in an attempt to understand what he meant. 

I’d met Linda back in March in Hibbing Minnesota, along with a second Linda (Stroback), during the first of 3 ‘pilgrimages’ to the locales Bob Dylan is most renowned for (the other two being Woodstock and Greenwich Village, NY), all of which I’ve now written about in these pages (entries #10, #34 and #45).  Anyhow, during that visit, Linda and Linda took me on a tour of town, which included a stop at a railroad crossing.  The story goes that at that very location, two friends watched as a young Bobby Zimmerman, tired of waiting for a train to pass, threw caution to the wind, and darted out on his motorcycle just as the caboose passed by, without waiting to see if the coast was clear.  It wasn’t, because at the exact same instance, a train was crossing from the other direction, hidden by the train they had been waiting on.  Linda and Linda had been told by these old friends of Bobby Zimmerman that they were certain he’d been run over.  When they caught up with him later, happy to see this was not the case, they could tell he was rattled.  They also would come to notice in the months that followed, that this was a changed young man in their midst.  A transfigured man perhaps?

In Dylan’s own words (from the Rolling Stone interview), “transfiguration is what allows you to crawl out from under the chaos and fly above it.  That’s how I can still do what I do and write the songs I sing and just keep on moving”.  He goes on to refer to two other motorcycle accidents that came about years after the railroad crossing Hibbing event, one that killed another Bobby Zimmerman in 1964, and the one that anyone who knows anything about Bob Dylan’s life has heard about; that being his well-publicized accident in 1966.  He insinuates that these events tie together somehow in a way that transfigured him.  However, Linda and Linda’s story had me thinking that Dylan may have gotten his transfiguration moment wrong.  In other words, it could have happened a lot earlier, in Hibbing, at that railroad crossing, which would explain pre-1964 transcendent songs such as “A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall”, “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a Changin’” and many others. I’m thinking Linda Whiteside may agree based on our exchanges over the past year. 

Linda’s email was chock full of commentary about that transfiguration interview, cut and pasted from the labor-of-love Bob Dylan fan site Expecting Rain ( https://www.expectingrain.com/ )   Linda’s timing was impeccable.  It was a labor of friendship, and much appreciated.  Reading that commentary allowed me to flesh out my thoughts on the topic.  In turn, one of two major loose ends in this Master Blue Print year was tying itself up quite nicely.  Amazingly, the other one, which I had no expectations of seeing to an endgame, began playing itself out that very same Sunday evening.  For, not long after getting Linda’s email, I got another email, this one from my longtime great friend Mac, who I have written about often in these pages.  Mac got wind of a premiere regional showing of the new movie about the life of bluesman Paul Butterfield: Horn from the Heart, which was playing at the Regent Theatre in Arlington on Monday evening.  Of even more interest, the event would include a post-movie live interview with Mr. Al Kooper. 

Some background is needed.  Back in 2016, Mac and I caught a fantastic Bob Dylan tribute show at the Berklee Performance Center in Boston, with Al Kooper playing the role of MC.  I wanted to write about it a few months back, but first I needed to fill in some of the gaps in my memory of the show.  I was especially interested in recalling more of Kooper’s between-song banter, which was rich in reflection and allegory:  After all, this man has been there and done that when it comes to some of the most significant moments in Rock history, including playing those famous organ notes on “Like a Rolling Stone” (and keyboards on much of Blonde on Blonde), and it was clear from his online interviews and that Berklee event, that he knew how to spin that yarn.  I tried searching out reviews of the Berklee show, but to my astonishment, there was nothing.  How could such an event go undocumented?  I finally reached out to the Berklee Performance Center itself.  They were very cordial, but in the end, were only able to get me the concert flyer (which I already had).  They also suggested that I try to reach out directly to Al Kooper, sending me the link to his website which includes information on how to contact him.

Not long after, I did reach out to Al Kooper, and to my pleasant surprise, he got right back to me.  Kooper could not recall much of anything he said that evening at the Berklee but having been clued into my blog site during our back and forth exchange, (which of course was necessary to explain my interest in reaching out to him), he left the door open for me to build something new on what I’d initiated.  I thought about it, but I had nothing.  Nothing unique anyway.  I let the notion percolate quietly in the back of my mind, but as the weeks and months rolled by, I concluded that this was not going to work out.  It felt too contrived. 

Mac had no clue about any of this, which is why I was floored when he contacted me about this Regent Theatre event at a time when I was hitting the home stretch with these Dylan blog entries.  And so now here I was with Mac in the front row of the first balcony on Monday nite, watching a documentary about Paul Butterfield, and anticipating Al Kooper’s commentary afterward.  The movie was bittersweet:  The super-talented Butterfield having died long before his time due to substance abuse, as be the case for so many other musicians.  Several of those other musicians were in the movie too, including Rick Danko, Levon Helm, and Mike Bloomfield.  Horn from the Heart was brutally honest, and included a moving interview with Paul Butterfield’s son, who felt he’d missed out on significant aspects of a fatherly figure in his upbringing.  It was tough to watch, and yet, taking in the whole ball of wax - the rise to fame, the brilliance, the decline, the absenteeism - this was a story that needed to be told.  It was all food for thought as I watched. 

With the documentary over, two chairs were placed center stage.  After a few words of praise, Kooper was introduced by his interviewer to much applause, and the 75-year-old rock star meandered up on to the stage.  He then proceeded to pour his heart out to the crowd; as insightful and witty as I had remembered him at the Berklee 2 years earlier.  He has had relationships with all the musicians mentioned in this entry so far: Butterfield, Bloomfield, Danko, Helm, and of course, Bob Dylan.  It was great to witness that he was getting all this out there now, while he still could (Kooper is also currently hosting his own radio show, where he gets to really expound). 

Anyhow, from my vantage point this was all beginning to feel eerily familiar:  Two chairs center stage with Mac and I sitting stage left in the front row of the balcony.  The last time I was in this exact same situation, Pete Townshend was on a book tour, and Mac and I were sitting stage left in the front row of the balcony, at the Berklee. In that event, I was able to pose several questions to Townshend when the interviewer opened up the floor to the audience (see Under the Big Top # 1:  "A Pete Meet and Greet").  Was I in store to repeat? 

The answer is yes.  After about 30 minutes of questions and answers between Al Kooper and the interviewer, talking points were welcomed from the crowd. Unlike how I had felt at the tail end of my email exchange with Kooper months earlier, this moment felt genuine.  I stood up and with all eyes turned my way I proceeded to praise the documentary.  I then expressed hope that Horn from the Heart was the start of a wave of such movies about brilliant musicians who died before their time, including documentaries that could be done on Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Mike Bloomfield.  Their stories needed to be told just like Paul Butterfield’s story; the magic, the tragic, all of it.  One of the producers was in the crowd.  I hope she took note.  Al Kooper certainly did, and he responded in kind (particularly in the case of Bloomfield, whom he was very close with).  Life as a rock and roll star on the road can be grueling.  It can have its transcendent moments for sure, but it can also take its toll. 

After the show, Mac and I headed down the stairs and were on our way out the door, when I spotted Al Kooper making his way up the aisle with an associate.  The only person between him and I was an autograph hound.  I stopped in my tracks for the chance to shake Kooper’s hand, which finally happened after he graciously signed a stack full of this other guy’s old Blood Sweat and Tear records.  As Al and I shook hands, I mentioned our email exchange.  I also mentioned that I was the guy who posed those talking points from the balcony.  He gave me a knowing look and a nod.  It was all I needed to confirm that I was on target with how I dealt with this chain of events. Sometimes, if you just sit on something for a while, it plays out much better in the end.  Significant loose end # 2 all tied up. 

As be the case every Master Blueprint week, my drives to work were intensifying with each passing day, as I repeated “Every Grain of Sand” on my cd player (along with a handful of other Bob Dylan “Gospel Years” songs).  I’ll say this about Dylan right here and now: He’s had a renewing effect on my spirituality this year.  With Christmas in the air, this fact was becoming more apparent.  I believe Bob Dylan’s spiritual effect on our culture will be a significant part of his legacy when all is said and done; much more so than it is recognized now. 

I continued to read through Linda’s transfiguration email as the week wore on. One entry led me to a Wiki page for a 1965 album by American fingerstyle guitarist and composer John Fahey titled “The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death”.  I’d never heard of this album or this musician before.  Further research led me to the following quote from the producer about recording Fahey perform a key song on the album: “He sat there with a dog at his feet. There’s one track where the dog barks in the middle of the music – it was my decision to leave that false start in”.  This was pretty darn cool, because the version of “Every Grain of Sand” I had been listening to all week (from the Bootleg Series), includes a dog barking in the background ( https://vimeo.com/189420194 - the dog barks at 2:15 mark and the 3:10 mark).  It was just another outlandish synergistic moment in a year filled with them. 

On Wednesday, I had to miss the office Christmas party for the biggest event of the week:  Charlotte was coming home from a year in Panama and Colombia.  Nancy and I picked her up at Logan Airport in Boston.  There was much rejoicing.  Charlotte’s been trekking thru all sorts of grains of sand this past year, much of it related to her internship at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City, and some of it on her own weekend time.  She’s explored those sands on protected shores to watch threatened sea turtles hatch.  In the deep rainforests to catch much more than just a glimpse of resplendent quetzals in flight.  In the urban cultural meccas of Bogota, Medellin, Cali, and Panama City. On mountain peaks in the Andes.  On hardened molten lava at the edges of active volcanoes.  Among coral reefs on both the Atlantic and Pacific shores of the region.  Beneath a canopy alive with night monkeys, another with howler monkeys, and yet another with spider monkeys.  I’ve lived vicariously through it all, but it’s a blessing to have her home now, if only for a brief period.

One line in “Every Grain of Sand” that I zeroed in on that Thursday morning as I drove into work goes:

I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea
Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me

I thought of the poem “Footprints in the Sand”; yet another sandy reference which at its core is about God carrying us in our hardest of times.  The Bob Dylan lyrics lines above come across as a twist on this poem, where he is pointing out that, when we are on our game, we connect with the presence of God and the presence of our loved ones, and in those other often self-inflicted dark times, we feel (but are not) alone.

I’ve been in both these worlds…. we all have.  But this past week, no doubt, I was immersed in the former.  I was feeling connected: The grains of sand pouring fast and furious through the hourglass neck now. Friday continued along this vein with the ‘Steeves Man of the Year’ gathering, better known as SMOY.  I’ve had the honor of receiving this prestigious award several times, most recently 2 years ago.  The recipient chooses the next year’s location and recipient.  Last year I chose, my Brother-in-Law, Paul.  This year Paul chose my Dad, who has appropriately had his name on the trophy more often than any of us.  Dad initiated this unique, bonafide annual lunch gathering back in 1999.  He (and my Mom) have a knack for launching such incredibly joyous endeavors.  None of us take it for granted.

Saturday, Charlotte reunited with her 5 best undergrad friends.  We hosted the gathering, Nancy preparing a fantastic meal.  Peter walked in the door not soon after, finally home for the holidays after a week of grueling exams.  It was quite the moment to see he and Charlotte embrace.  Our family was one once again.

On Sunday after Mass, I approached the pastor, Father Jeremy, to wish him a Merry Christmas.  He pulled me aside from the crowd and stated that a parish benefactor handed him a 100-dollar bill the day before asking that he give it to someone in need.  He described the moment as somewhat miraculous, but I did not have an opportunity to get to the meat of why.  Anyhow, he pulled the bill out and asked that I give it to John and June Leary for their grandson’s and their own Christmas wishes, but I was already way ahead of him in my mind.  I thanked him profusely and then headed to the local 7-eleven for a cup of coffee and wouldn’t you know it, there was John Leary sitting at the lone table in the place, sipping on his own cup of coffee (when he’s feeling up to it, John makes his way slowly to the store from his apartment one block away, using a walker).  I walked over and handed him the $100.  He refused to accept until I gave him the story behind it, at which point he showed me his appreciation, accepted the bill and slipped it into his empty wallet. We carried on for a bit, exchanging well wishes.  I tried to be subtle, but there was a dapper gentleman, who appeared to be in his 70s, sitting right behind John. He immediately picked up on what was going on and was nodding throughout in admiration. I had never seen this guy before which is unusual in this small town. As I departed, he thanked me and said, ‘well done’.  It all had the feel of scenes in “It’s a Wonderful Life”; this gentleman playing the role of Clarence Odbody.   

My “Every Grain of Sand” week began with John Leary, and it felt apropos that it would end with him as well.  With all those sand grains now in the bottom of that proverbial hourglass, I flipped it over, and started anew.

Merry Christmas everyone.

Pete

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Master Blueprints # 46: "Lights Flicker from the Opposite Loft, In This Room the Heat Pipes Just Cough”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “Visions of Johanna”
Album: Blonde on Blonde
Release Date: June 1966

The woods.  Campfires.  Hiking.  Why was I thinking about these open-space archetypes all week as I listened to “Visions of Johanna”? I mean, on the face of things, the two worlds could not be more diametrically opposed.  Listen to that Bob Dylan classic off the 1966 masterpiece Blonde on Blonde at any level, and you only get an urban feel for place.  A very urban feel. A New York City feel.  Heat pipes, empty lots, all-night girls, night watchmen, the “D-train”, museums, and fish trucks.  They are all there in “Visions of Johanna”.  Nothing doing for trees, streams and fire pits. 

But here’s the thing: This song transcends locale.  It also transcends any specific meaning, such as the longing for someone who is not there (although that is a beautiful focus of the song).  Much of the reason for this has to do with trailblazing. “Visions of Johanna” and the album it is on, was the thick icing on the cake that Bob Dylan had been baking since he introduced himself to the world four years earlier. For many of us, we can’t help but hear the far bigger and broader narrative.  The song and the album were introducing a significant moment in time; a counterculture period that would ultimately prove to affect multiple generations, including mine, and now maybe even my children’s.

And yet, why the woods?  To flesh this out, I’ll need to first go back a ways. I grew up in a small town in the 60s and 70s.  Indeed, Franklin, Massachusetts was quite rural back in the day.  There were certain unique qualities in that town at that time that helped to shape who I am, which can be hard to define.  However, over the years I’ve taken stabs at this, and I hope some of it has seeped through in these blog writeups.  I’ll be doing more of that here as I try to explain the connection to “Visions of Johanna” ( https://vimeo.com/188544213 ).

Anyhow, that rural Franklin where I spent my formative years is long gone, replaced by suburban sprawl.  Fifteen years ago, though, I discovered a modern-day Franklin of yore; Pepperell, Massachusetts.  I did some exploring.  No traffic lights.  No long lines anywhere.  A neighborly familiarity at the grocery store. And lots of woods.  After some cajoling, I talked my wife Nancy into moving here - she having been raised in the far-more urban Woburn, Massachusetts, where all the creature comforts were within a few minutes driving distance.  We have since had the privilege of calling Pepperell our home.

Why the yearning?  I mean, I can live just about anywhere.  Cities work for me.  So, too does the countryside.  And the ocean.  The mountains. Old. New. Even suburbia.  Well, I yearned because I knew a good thing when I experienced it as a kid, and I wanted my kids to have that same experience.  After moving to Pepperell, we would take Charlotte and Peter out into the woods regularly, and as they grew up, I’d tell them to get out there on their own with their friends.  I’d also tell them that ‘out there’ on the foot trails and under the canopy is where the real magic happens.  They took me up on it and came to understand what I was talking about.

What did I mean by this?  I was not sure how to explain at first, but over time I’ve gotten better at articulating it.  In the woods, you get to experience the dynamic side of your true nature more than anywhere else.  You can probably find that dynamism virtually anywhere and in any way if you are of open mind (as be the case with Bob Dylan when he wrote “Visions of Johanna”), but in the woods, it can manifest itself more readily. 

I think an example or two will best get my point across.  Let me start with a compare/contrast: The use of traditional maps to get from point A to point B vs. the modern-day approach of commanding your car or smartphone to get you somewhere.  I have a strong bias to the traditional approach, although I will admit upfront that in a pinch and tight on time, I will turn to new technology to find my destination.  But I do try to minimize that dependency.  I also realize that some people are simply not blessed with a sense of direction, and so this technology is a godsend for them.  But some of us are blessed with the ability to navigate.  I’m one of them, and I’ve managed to take this God-given skill and make it a career, working as a computer mapping specialist (GIS) at the United States Geological Survey (USGS) for over 30 years now.  In this capacity, I’m surrounded by others of similar ability. 

About 15 years ago I was in Denver, and after a long day of work, a group of us chose a place to eat which was a bit off the beaten path. I reached for the paper map in the glove compartment when one of these colleagues pulled out his cell phone and stated, ‘I got this’.  He then proceeded to establish our location using GPS and then punched in the address where we were going.  Voila! Instant directions.  We wouldn’t even have to think.  A decade or so earlier, I had a sense on where all this was going; long before digital directions became the widespread technology we use today.  In fact, the work my colleagues and I were doing at that time were forging that path.  And now, here we were at the transition moment, heading to a restaurant in Denver.  You would think I’d have been ecstatic, but this was not my reaction.  Instead, I looked at him and the words that came out of my mouth were a half-joking “shame on you!”. 

He didn’t get it, so I explained that he and I had these natural abilities of orientation, and if he was not careful he was going to see them erode.  My colleague begged to differ, arguing the technology had nothing but beneficial consequences.  I don’t know.  I guess he had a point.  Still, I needed to think more about why I felt the way I did.  Not long after, it hit me.  I thought of the woods, just like I did this week.  And from there I thought of Native Americans and other primitive peoples, their connection to the natural world, and in turn their ability to see the God-given skills in their young people as they experience the natural world.  For example, they can see the special ability in one child to track wild animals. They see it in another one who has an uncanny knowledge of where groundwater can be found.  Another can understand the communication among a murder of crows.  Yet another can decipher the medicinal properties of native plants.  And to my point, another who has a detailed map of their world ingrained in his/her mind.  This is all dynamic.  We too have uncanny, inexplicable skills like these.  Most of us will never get anywhere near our capabilities however.  Our world is too contrived to allow it. 

What does this have to do with “Visions of Johanna”?  Well, first off, as with all the music off Blonde on Blonde, this is a deep song that pulled young people back in a dynamic direction.  Music like this was simply not written in the mid-60s, or any time before that, particularly in the genre of rock and roll.  But it blossomed after. In other words, Bob Dylan brought intellect to rock and roll and to a generation of rock listeners.  This was not just the type of intellect where someone would say he was ‘well read’. The lyrics in all his songs play this out, but all I have to do is use the lines in “Visions of Johanna to prove this point.  And so, it was also a philosophical intellect (“But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues, you can tell by the way she smiles”).  It too was faith intellect (“and Madonna, she still has not showed”).  It was an intellect that explored deeper meaning and emotion related to love (“Louise, she’s all right, she’s just near, she’s delicate and seems like the mirror, but she just makes it all too concise and too clear, that Johanna’s not here”), empathy (“The peddler now speaks to the countess who’s pretending to care for him, sayin’ ‘Name me someone that’s not a parasite and I’ll go out and say a prayer for him’”), and quite often what it meant to be American (“and the country music plays soft, but there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off”). It was even an intellect related to humor (“Hear the one with the mustache say, ‘Jeez, I can’t find my knees’”).  Most important though, it was an intellect based on insight to our yearning for dynamics in our lives (“The fiddler he now steps to the road, he writes ev’rything’s been returned which was owed, on the back of the fish truck that loads, while my conscience explodes”).

Bob Dylan could have kept his voice in the folk world, and he would have done quite well there.  But by ‘going electric’ he opened his brilliance to mass appeal. In turn, he initiated a movement.  The youth of the free world were not only ready for his sound, they were also ready for his intellect. Say what you will about the 60s counterculture, but one thing that can’t be denied, and which resonates to this day, is that there was an underlying effort to grasp a deeper meaning to life.  To separate the real from the fake.  The essential from the superfluous. The substance from the material.  

One place I’ve always felt closer to the flame is literally close to the flame:  Sitting around a campfire.  We have a firepit in the backyard here in Pepperell.  As be the case in the many camping trips we’ve enjoyed over the years with friends and family, this is the spot where you really can unwind.  It’s also where people tend to open up, more so than usual.  And the intellect and dynamics of the conversations ramp up a notch or two as well.  Stare into that fire long enough and all sorts of visions start jumping out.  I occasionally find myself connecting with the elders of some ancient tribe, passing the peace pipe.  And, I find myself connecting with my younger self; many moons spent under the stars, be it winter, summer, spring or fall, with a fire crackling in front of me and my friends.  All those great discussions about love, hopes and dreams.  My conscience exploding in those moments.

My son Peter has spent many-a-night sitting around that firepit with his friends when he was in high school.  And he did this at his friends’ homes too.  But more importantly, he did the same thing in the woods, like I did in Franklin in my high school years. As he grew, and we talked, I could see the experience of dynamic life unfold in his eyes.  It was so cool to see.  I was thankful.  It guaranteed we could connect on many levels for as long as time allowed.

I’m not sure of this next point, but I’m thinking the 60s introduced a new/ancient atmosphere back into the American culture: That peace-pipe circle and its meaning.  As mentioned above, it happened outdoors, but the indoors was not exempt.  In this case, the key ingredients were friends and loud music.  Yes, maybe a bong was sitting in the center of that circle, but it was not essential. What was essential was listening to that music.  There were lyrics to read in the album sleeves.  There was off key singing.  There was air guitar.  There was the requisite Hendrix poster on the wall.  There was nodding in approval.  There was intelligent interpretation.  In those moments, I’m telling you, there was also telepathy.  Bob Dylan gets the credit in my book for bringing it all back home: The peace-pipe circle that is.

As for my daughter Charlotte, well, the fact that she’s hiking in some remote forest in Colombia as I type this speaks for itself.  I remember the moment when I could begin to envision her path in life.  We were on an overnight ferry coming home from an amazing trip to Newfoundland.  Charlotte was around 13 at the time. The week there had a remote rugged feel to it.  Puffins. Icebergs. Fjords. Caribou.  On that trip home, all the cabins on the ferry were booked and so, as with many others, we sprawled out on the comfortable reclining chairs in the general seating area.  Charlotte could not sleep and so she roamed the deck.  When the horns blew to announce that we were soon docking, we gathered our stuff and headed down to the car.  As we loaded, Charlotte looked at me and said “Dad, I saw poster a poster on the wall last nite. It said, ‘you couldn’t be any further from Disney than you are right now’”. 

Today, I’d like to credit Pepperell and Bob Dylan for that moment.

It’s good to have stability, but I think there should always be more than a little room for the dynamic.  So, if you know someone who is not married to their smart phone.  Or they drive a shit box.  Or they like to use paper maps.  Or, they find far more appeal to identifying a plant than living in luxury.  Or they shake their head often at the greed around them. Or they see the forest for the trees, literally and figuratively, then you might not have to look any further than the effect that the ideals of the counterculture 60s had on them. It’s all by choice, folks.  And, it may be the only way to leave sufficient mental space for dynamic life, an open mind, and of course, those visions.

Pete